Monster movies are important. They reveal what it is that frightens people at any given moment in time, what has captured the darkest parts of our imagination, what thrills and what concerns us. They show us what we're most afraid of losing — from our place in the universe, to our place in society, to our innocence — whatever that means, to the security we feel in our homes, bound by a white picket fence. So what does the most recent incarnation of "Godzilla" tell us about our fears? What is it that we're afraid of? What are we afraid of losing?
Other than sixteen bucks (I went to one of those fancy movie theaters where food and alcohol are served and taken away during critical points in the movie, so it was more expensive than usual), not much.
Spoilers, obviously, abound.
The original, 1954 "Gojira" movie — later repackaged, dubbed, and given an English-language narration as 1956's Godzilla, King of the Monsters! — was, rather famously, the product of a very real fear surrounding the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945, and the bombs' impact on Japan and its people. The American version retains some of this, editing it in such a way to give audiences then and today a "hint" of what this giant lizard was all about, without sending 1950s American audiences into some sort of shame/anger spiral a mere decade and a year after Fat Man and Little Boy slammed into the earth.
The '56 movie opens with Steve Martin (I know), an American journalist. He's our gateway, as an American audience in 1956. He's the bridge that, through his very presence and his copious narration, connects our experience to that of people we were fighting against just a short decade ago. He is injured and reflective, taking in the devastation around him: the mangled bodies, the little girl weeping over her mother. He thinks about his survival compared to other people dying in other rooms. And that's what a journalist does, right? He or she takes in the world and shares it with people who can't be there to see it themselves.
The rest of the movie is told as a flashback. Our good friend Steve recounts his visit to an island off Japan's coast, where inhabitants perform rituals in order to appease an ancient, destructive force reawakened by [CERTAIN RECENT EVENTS]. This is "Gojira" (literally "gorilla-whale," which, rumor has it, was named after a studio worker who didn't not resemble the combination of these two creatures), and there is much screen time devoted to whether the island natives' worries are merely the stuff of legend and superstition. "The island people are beset by many dangers, Steve," his Japanese friend tells him. "Some real, some imagined."
The reemergence of this monster — who turns out to be all too real — is directly the result of human interference. Violent, deadly, DNA-mangling human interference. Gojira is eventually defeated because a young Japanese scientist, Dr. Serizawa, had accidentally discovered a way to remove oxygen from water (I know), which of course results in any creature in this oxygen-less water dying a painful, excruciating death as his flesh is seared from his bones. Although Serizawa's discovery kills the menace and saves the day, he had nonetheless felt guilty over his discovery and its implications.
Which is an important thing to remember, both in the context in which the movie was made and in comparison to the 2014 version which….
…Isn't about any of that.
Our main protagonist here is "Ford Brody," whose name, appearance, and emotional blankness calls to mind a G.I. Joe action figure. Where Steve Martin was a journalist, a person whose job it is to be our eyes, Ford Brody is a military man. His job is not to see, but to do. And, fortunately for the purposes of our plot, he just so happens to be an expert on bombs. He is also, rather coincidentally, the son of an engineer played by Bryan Cranston for two seconds, who knows there's some sort of cover-up surrounding the tremors that destroyed the Japanese power plant where he worked, resulting in the death of his wife. Since manic science-y guys in action movies are almost always right, Ford (seriously, I know) learns that the tremors were indeed caused by an ancient, wingèd creature that is NOT Mothra. Because it feeds on radiation, the creature cocooned itself beneath the power plant until it was ready to burst forth and fly from Japan to… Hawaii. From there, it meets up with its mate in San Francisco, where they exchange a radioactive bomb like teenagers exchanging gum under the bleachers. Godzilla is thus aroused from his slumber, hunting down the not-Mothra and its also-not-Mothra mate because, as a Japanese scientist played by Ken Watanabe helpfully explains, Godzilla's role is to restore "natural order."
Yes, Godzilla is the good guy, hailed as the movie's hero even as he tears down the Golden Gate Bridge. He chases the not-Mothras to San Francisco, where they fight while providing minimal disaster porn, before returning to the ocean whence he came.
But not before letting out one final, victorious roar, as two fighter jets zip across the sky behind him.
Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
So what's going on here? In the original Japanese version and its American repackaging, Godzilla is the bad guy. He is an ancient, destructive entity, a powerful melding of nature's force and man's hubris. He has long been a part of the Japanese imagination, the stuff of legend and ritual. He attacks the Japanese people, and is eventually destroyed by the accidental, destructive creation of a Japanese person, a person who is also emotionally and physically destroyed by his violent creation.
In the 2014 version, Godzilla is a powerful, destructive, but ultimately benevolent force. He hunts and attacks creatures that gestated in Japan and then flew to Hawaii. He brings these monsters down with the help of the U.S. military, specifically with a bomb that destroys the not-Mothras' thousands of writhing not-Mothra babies. While Godzilla uses brute force and blue laser-breath to defeat his foes, the U.S. military is debating whether it can use a bomb to 1) attract the radioactivity-hungry monsters, and then 2) blast them into oblivion. The Japanese scientist has an issue with this, helpfully symbolized by the watch he carries with him. It was his grandfather's, and remains stopped at the exact moment the uranium-based bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. This character appears to be the only person in the movie aware that this has ever happened.
Because that's another interesting point about this movie: it revises history. The movie's opening credits are set amid lines of text being whited out, censored. You would think, then, that government censorship or the withholding of information from the public by powerful forces — a real, topical, resonant fear — might be a major theme throughout the movie, but it merely serves as a minor plot point. In the movie, the nuclear weapons testing performed by the U.S. in the 1940s were not connected to the War but, rather, attempts to kill radioactive super monsters gestating beneath the desert.
So, then, there are two good guys: Godzilla, king of the monsters, and the U.S. military. Never is this more apparent than in the aforementioned scene with Godzilla roaring triumphantly beside military aircraft.
What does this mean? What does it mean to re-contextualize a monster that represents the fear of nuclear fallout in Japan, of the impact of nuclear weapons on our land and in our bodies, and place it on American soil, fighting a menace that made its way across the sky from Japan to Hawaii, defeated by bombs built by the U.S. military? Decades after Americans and Japanese alike lost their lives to bombs dropped by the other, what does it say about what we fear today? Being the bad guy, maybe?
There's a scene in the movie where a plane, its control system destroyed by electro-magnetic pulses given off by the monsters, slams into a building, sending it crashing down. It's a scene we've seen on television many times now. In another scene — perhaps the most frightening and beautiful in the whole movie — military parachuters jump from their plane down into a cloudy abyss, red smoke trailing behind them as they fall, like blood in the sky. Their view of the ground is obscured by smoke and debris, hiding the unmitigated horror playing out beneath them. Somewhere in that smoke, their city is being destroyed. And they have to join that fight. It's a relatively quiet scene, and it goes on for a while, following the soldiers as they fall to earth, eventually passing just beside monsters the size of skyscrapers. In a mostly silly monster movie, it does make you feel for the people who fall from the sky, set to battle unseen horror. It's a human moment in a movie with very little human emotion.
But the movie doesn't seem to be so much about fear as much as it's about being consoled, being assured that the good guy will win. In times of confusion and suffering and violence, there is a clear bad guy, and a clear good guy. And we are good. We were always good. And we will prevail. The bombs are working for us, not against us.
Have no fear.